Southern Man
Jesse Helms was an archetype. Now is he an artifact?

Reviewed by Michael Skube
Sunday, March 9, 2008


Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism

By William A. Link

St. Martin's. 643 pp. $39.95

A visitor to Jesse Helms's campaign headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., in 1984 would have noticed something curious. Helms, seeking a third term in the Senate, was in a bitter race against North Carolina's two-term governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat. Helms, of course, was the Republican. But nowhere in his headquarters did you see the word "Republican." No GOP elephants were in sight.

On the red, white and blue banners that festooned his office you saw just "Jesse Helms" and "Conservative." That was the political identity he had fashioned early on in the small town of Monroe, N.C., where his father was chief of police, and in more than 50 years of political activism, Jesse A. Helms Jr. never strayed from it.

William A. Link's Righteous Warrior is a scrupulously fair biography of a man who gave himself entirely to protecting a way of life he saw as endangered. To Helms, that meant conservatism more than it meant one political party or another.

Helms, who left the Senate in 2003, is now 86, retired and ailing. His legacy will be much disputed, with no shades of gray. He was -- depending on your education, your race, your station -- either a defender of the way things should forever be, or a retrograde and faintly dangerous feature of the Southern landscape, like those tacky roadside fireworks stands. He was either a courtly gentleman who loved children and old people, or he was, as the essayist Hal Crowther once described him, "a kind of navigational marker, a fixed thing to steer away from if you want to keep yourself from grounding on dangerous shoals."

Link, a professor of history at the University of Florida, attempts to explain Helms's importance without engaging in either veneration or caricature. In his view, Helms was an architect of the conservative reshaping of politics in the 1970s and '80s, a conduit of regional support for Ronald Reagan and a source of organizational know-how for conservatism nationally. "The rise of the new American right," Link argues, "cannot be properly understood without coming to terms with Helms's role."

But conservatism comes in many stripes. Helms's values owed little to Alexander Hamilton, whose espousal of a strong central government Helms would have found uncongenial. Nor would he have had much in common with, say, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, for whom conservatism was a disposition more than a creed.

Rather, Helms thought conservatives had a duty to proselytize, to persuade, to confront the enemy at every turn. And the enemy was, in various guises, liberalism, socialism, communism, atheism, women's rights, homosexuality, forced integration, secularism -- anything, in short, that might be catalogued under Modernity.

And yet there was another side, seldom seen. Link describes Helms watching appreciatively as his granddaughter shot baskets with former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a liberal Democrat, in Washington. More surprising still was his bonding, late in life, with U2's Bono to seek greater financial assistance for AIDS victims in Africa. With his granddaughter, he was even a guest in Bono's skybox at a U2 concert; the audience, Helms said, was "moving back and forth like corn in the breeze." None of this altered his views of feminism, homosexuality or anything else he opposed.

Before he became a symbol of a particular brand of uncompromising, racially tinged social conservatism, he was a high school tuba player, the graduating senior voted "most obnoxious" by his classmates and an aspiring sportswriter. Some thought he had a promising career in newspapers. His reporting and commentary in the now-defunct Raleigh Times was, as Link describes it, alternately "hard-hitting and personal."

This would seem to be giving him more than his due. One could say, just as fairly, that he had positions more than he had ideas. He was never given to reflection, and he was not intellectually curious. He knew what he needed to know, and that was that. If he had gifts as a communicator, they were for pungency and for understanding his audience. He entered politics in the early 1950s as a Senate aide and later worked as a lobbyist for North Carolina bankers. But his big break was becoming an editorial commentator at a Raleigh television station, WRAL, in the '60s. It provided him a visibility the state's political establishment underestimated, and in 1972 he upset Democratic Rep. Nick Galifianakis for a Senate seat. He held it for three decades, rising to the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, where he brokered administration appointments he wanted and blocked those he didn't.

Helms came to Washington a hostile outsider yet ultimately wielded considerable power, in large part because of the seniority system in Congress. To say that he moved the country rightward would seem less persuasive today than it once did. The evangelical movement, a pillar of his support, has shown signs of evolving into something it was not 25 years ago -- more humane in its rhetoric, more concerned about the poor. Doctrinal conservatism seems to have worn thin.

Helms's face was once on wristwatches that ran counter-clockwise, telling time backwards. Now one must ask if his time isn't past, his conservatism a mutant strain that could not reproduce. If so, his biography might be like one of Uriah B. Phillips or William Graham Sumner, forgotten relics of a South gone for good. *

Michael Skube, a former political reporter in North Carolina, teaches journalism at Elon University.

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